Accessibility: The Value of Inclusion

Graphic image with text stating user experience, equality, respect, diversity, justice.

What is web content accessibility and why is it good for content SEO?

Web content accessibility is about making web content more user-friendly and inclusive, addressing the user experience for those who are vision-impaired, blind, poor at hearing or deaf. A website that complies with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) offers content that is easily understood using assistive technology. It’s also been proven that WCAG compliance improves website user experience for everyone because it means a website is: well structured and designed; easy to understand; has findable content; uses alt tags; formatted correctly; mobile friendly.

This means that when a website complies with WCAG principles, you’ve made headway in addressing content SEO.

Four guiding WCAG principles

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) initiated WCAG in the 1990s and has developed the guidelines in stages since then. The latest W3C recommendation (at the time of writing) was in June 2018, version WCAG 2.1.

The initiative is based on web content successfully addressing the following four principles:

  1. Perceivable: Users must be able to take in the content in some way, using one or more senses

  2. Operable: Users must be able to control user-interface elements using clickable elements and/or voice commands.

  3. Understandable: The content must make sense, be easy to follow, written and formatted to assist the understanding and overall meaning of the content

  4. Robust: Web content must be developed using well-adopted web standards that work across different browsers and devices.

An analogy to set the scene

It may be helpful to better understand the need for WCAG compliance in website builds using a bricks-and-mortar analogy: Public buildings are built with specifications and designs to assist access for people in wheelchairs. Many new public buildings have assistive technology to help vision-impaired or blind people navigate their way throughout the building. This is a wonderful development and says a lot for the societies and organizations that respect accessibility. Website builds, certainly sites with important public information, and those that acknowledge the value of having a broad audience, should factor in relatively simple integrations to make content accessible to everyone.

Examples of accessible content

The following examples indicate content with a good user experience and accessibility in mind:

  • Video content with closed captions and/or transcripts.

  • Image alt tags with a good, alternative description of the image for assistive technology to read out.

  • Tables formatted correctly with header tags and column IDs so a screen reader can disseminate the data accurately when a screen reader is used.

  • Mobile friendly websites — accessible and usable on all devices.

WCAG, SEO marketing and your audience

Ageing populations: Populations in many countries around the world are ageing which means that audiences with vision or hearing impairment are increasing.

Culturally diverse audiences: copy writing that is inclusive, that respects gender and cultural equity, contributes to a respectful, inclusive good user experience for everyone.

Site speed: not everyone has access to high-speed internet. Optimised content for a better online experience offers a wider audience access and appreciation of your web content — without having to wait forever for content to render on your screen. Sometimes content just doesn’t load if it’s not optimised which is therefore inequitable user experience.

The business case for the WCAG compliance

Commercial, government, educational and non-profit businesses or organisations all benefit from appealing to, and offering information for, diverse audiences.

Brands are enhanced from being inclusive and responsible and respecting diverse audiences. An accessible website will have increased market reach increasing as the global population ages.

Legal risk has increased. In Australia, one of the earliest examples of legal consequences of web inaccessibility was a complaint to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission in 2000. The blind plaintiff claimed the Sydney Olympics website was in violation of the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act because a screen reader was not able to make sense of the website content.

Business Case Study

NPR Weekly Broadcast (taken from W3C: The Business Case for Digital Accessibility)

This American Life is a broadcast heard on more than 500 National Public Radio (NPR) stations by about 2.1 million listeners each week in the United States. In 2011, in response to new regulations around broadcast media from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the broadcaster committed to creating transcripts for their entire archive of recorded programs. A study by their media partner, conducted over several months, concluded that the provision of transcripts not only met legal obligations but returned significant benefits including:

  • search traffic increased 6.86%

  • better comprehension for visitors who use English as a second language

  • visitors were able to use transcripts in noisy or sound-sensitive environments

  • ability to more easily translate

  • ability to search text to reference a specific section of audio.

The study, conducted over more than one year, used Google Analytics to capture the following data:

  • 7.23% of visitors viewed at least one transcript

  • unique visitors increased 4.18%

  • new inbound links to transcript accounted for an increase of 3.89%.

It’s interesting to note that this was a one-year study, from 2011. If I had to bet back then on whether the data and figures reported in this study’s findings would increase exponentially over time, I would have put a lot of money on it.  The bet would have paid off because NPR popularity is booming, their audience very broad. They obviously adopted the right model content: accessible content which as it turns out is helpful for everyone.

Global adoption of WCAG

Many countries around the world have adopted and adapted WCAG into their accessibility laws. If sections of a population are unable to get the same information and support from online sources they are clearly restricted, it’s an issue of inequity.

Clearly there are very good reasons why the governments of many countries have mandatory compliance of WCAG 2.1 for all government websites. In Australia, organisations like public universities that receive government funding must comply with WCAG 2.0.

Map outlining global adoption of WCAG

Have a look at 3Play Media’s map that outlines countries around the world that have adopted WCAG standards.

Why is WCAG good for SEO?

User experience plays an important part

Search engines notice user engagement and activity. It stands to reason that with the current level of search engine sophistication which, it’s safe to say, is only going to increase in sophistication, content accessibility for all users actively contributes to SEO.

Design and develop for user experience

Images and alt tags: User experience plus the meaningful inclusion of keywords in alt tags can’t be discounted as important factors for website optimization. Optimised images in your content help page loading times and very important for mobile devices and users with slow internet connection.

Colour palette: Using a palette with easy to differentiate colours that everyone can see makes sense. Small grey text can be difficult to read. Why not tweak the settings to enable readable content for everyone’s user experience?

Content structure and headings: Having your page content with a logical heading hierarchy helps all users. Screen readers identify heading structures and therefore users can better understand content on a page and how it. Having clearly defined headings has quick and easy SEO benefits.

Information architecture: Creating your website with logical and findable content, with sensible navigation, is inarguably a good idea for SEO and all users.

Findable, readable content: Findable, readable content is one of the hallmarks of a website that works. Organising your page content with helpful internal links to related information  and benefits all websites

In conclusion

The legal landscape has rapidly changed over recent decades in favour of equal access.

Website developers, designers and SEOs have a lot to gain from understanding and adopting web content accessibility guidelines.